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Geek Out: The Five Types of Bad Buzzing

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 20, 2007

Some thoughts are best kept to yourself. Unless you have a blog, anyway.

(Warning: Post contains severe trivia geekery and is not recommended for the faint of heart)

Probably because I’m about to go to practice as I started to write this, but I feel like writing about College Bowl today. It’s the collegiate extension of the quiz bowl-type trivia club that pretty much every High School had except mine, and it’s one of the more important things in my life, especially because it has a pop culture division as well, known as TRASH (or Total Recall About Strange Happenings, though it’s fairly obviously a forced acronym).

Anyway, my favorite part about the way College Bowl trivia is structured vs. the way most trivia works (like bar trivia, Trivial Pursuit or your average trivia game show) is that for the most part, the questions aren’t strict Q&A format. The questions, called tossups, are traditionally about a paragraph long, and rather than just asking you to recall one answer, they describe something–a movie, a song, a TV character, an athlete, a company, etc.–using clues, which get more and more obvious as the question progresses.

The key is to buzz in when you think you know what they’re describing, which is often before the question is finished and in some cases, is when the question has barely started, and give the answer they’re looking for. If you do this, and you’re correct, your team gets ten points and then a set of bonus questions, which only your team can answer and are more in the traditional trivia format, and is worth up to 30 points. If you’re wrong, however, and you buzzed in before the question was finished being read, your team loses five points, and no one else can ring in on your team until the next question.

These pre-mature incorrect buzzes, traditionally referred to as “negging,” are heartbreakers, and the words “neg five” coming out of a moderator’s mouth after you give your answer is the thing CBers tend to fear the most (that and knowing everything about an answer, except the answer’s name). Still, they tend to be a lot more interesting than correct answers, and to paraphrase Matt Damon in Rounders, a College Bowl player will rarely remember the buzzes he gets right, but will recall with vivid detail the ones he got wrong.

Much of the time, negs are reasonable–you thought the answer was one thing, but it was actually something else–but the most interesting and memorable types of negs fall into a category known as Bad Buzzes, buzzes that aren’t quite so justifiable, buzzes that make your teammates go “What were you thinking??” Ken Jennings, an ex-CBer himself, talks about bad buzzes a little bit in his trivia book Brainiac, but I’m gonna go into a little more detail–I’ve figured that bad buzzes more or less break down into five sub-categories of misjudgment. It might not be interesting to non-College Bowl players, but I’m writing about it, so to hell with you.

1. The Zone-Out Buzz. This is probably the most frequent type of bad buzz. It happens when you’re already a good deal into a question–and possibly you’ve stopped listening because nothing about what they’re describing sounds familiar–but you hear one detail, a name, or a location, or something you could swear you’ve heard before, and you reflexively buzz, mentally zoning out whatever came before in the question. You begin to give your answer, but by then you’ve had a second to think about it, and you realize that the answer you’re prepared to give makes no sense whatsoever given the rest of the question, and unsurprisingly, you’re met with a “neg five” response.

This happens all the time in College Bowl, because since speed is such an important component, if you take the time to think your answer over before buzzing, often someone’ll have beaten you to it by the time you commit. So you end up answering “The J. Geils Band,” when the question already said that the band formed in Australia in 1998, or something equivalent.

2. The “Go For It” Buzz: This buzz happens when you hear a detail near the beginning of a question that strikes a chord with you, but it’s not quite enough to buzz in on, so you wait for another corroborative detail to confirm that the answer that popped into your head is indeed the correct one. But, as the question goes on, you’re not hearing anything else that locks your answer as the correct one, and meanwhile, you’re worried that someone on the other team might be thinking the same thing you are, and maybe this stuff does sound familiar to him. So you decide to ring in with your answer on just the one detail and a hunch.

This isn’t always a bad idea. Recently I heard a detail at the beginning of a movie question that made it obvious that the answer was going to be a Jean-Pierre Jeunet-directed film, so I was thinking it would probably be Amelie. As the question progressed without giving me much more to go on, I decided that to go for it, since I couldn’t think of any other Jeunet films that were likely to have a tossup written about. And it turned out to be right. However, it’s very risky–even more recently, a song question started about Otis Redding doing the original version, and I knew Otis had done the original of “Respect,” so that simmered in my head until I eventually went in on it. But I was wrong, and the answer turned out to be “Hard to Handle,” which I would have known if I had just waited on the question a little longer.

3. The Category Buzz. This happens when you get a question about a category that you’re extremely confident in your knowledge of–for me it’s music and occasionally movies, for other people it might be sports or comics or TV. You’re gearing down to the end of the question and no one’s buzzed in yet, and none of the clues are sounding familiar. But in College Bowl trivia, almost every question ends with a clue that more or less gives the answer away–if it’s a song, they’ll give you the artist, or if it’s a sports team, they’ll give you the most famous athletes who’ve played on it, and so on. So when they give that giveaway, you can buzz immediately after hearing it, before you’ve had time to mentally process the information, and hope that in the time between buzzing in and giving your answer, you can pull it out.

This is even riskier than the “Go For It” Buzz, because you’re not going on anything except self-confidence. Sometimes you do a category buzz and then just stare blankly at the moderator because even though you buzzed in, you don’t have a clue what the answer is, even after you’ve had that second to process (which happened to me on a tossup once about a Kid Rock album that wasn’t Devil Without a Cause, and I had no idea whatsoever). Still, when the split-second of mental processing could mean someone else beats you to the tossup, it can occasionally be a good idea, as long as you don’t get too cocky (which, ironically, was the name of the Kid Rock album) about your abilities.

4. The Vanity Buzz. This is the most despicable and quickly regrettable type of bad buzz. It occurs when you don’t reall have that much to go on–one or two vague details at best–but you have an answer that seems logical, and you buzz in in an effort to wow people with how quickly you got the question. Certain players are more likely to do this than others, but I’ve definitely been guilty of it on at least one occasion–a question mentioned that a song was recorded in 1956, and I could only think of one logical song from that year that they would ask about (and my team was ahead and could afford the risk), so I buzzed and said “Rock Around the Clock.”

This was stupid for any number of reasons–not the least of which being that in retrospect, I’m pretty sure “Rock Around the Clock” was recorded in ’55–and I knew the answer shortly afterwards (it was Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” and the other team didn’t even get it). I just thought I would look like a badass (well, as close as you can come in the trivia spectrum) by getting a song just from the year. Not the sort of mistake I hope to make again.

5. The “I Should Have Gotten This By Now” Buzz. This is probably the most rare of the five types of bad buzzes, and the most difficult to explain. Sometimes, you get a question where everything they’re saying is vaguely familiar, but it isn’t quite congealing into a logical answer. But you get more and more frustrated as the question goes on, because you don’t understand why you’re not pulling it. Finally, you buzz, even though you have no answer in mind and no giveaway clue to process–if only just to get a small chance to clear your head and see if you can tie it together.

The “I Should Have Gotten This By Now” buzz rarely turns out well, and it turns into a similarly embarrassing situation to the Category Buzz, where everyone’s staring at you wondering why you buzzed in if you don’t even have a logical guess. And you can’t really even say why–it just felt like the right thing to do.

By the way, that Ken Jennings book is great. Those with even passing interests in trivia should probably check it out.

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One Response to “Geek Out: The Five Types of Bad Buzzing”

  1. John said

    Man, I wish there was College Bowl where I went to school. Lots of fun memories from high school, though.

    […and I just deleted a paragraph recommending the Ken Jennings book, because I skimmed your post and didn’t see that you’d already mentioned it.]

    I’m doing pub trivia tonight, for the first time with an actual moderator (not the automated Buzztime version). Pretty excited.

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